How 6 Families Went Gift-Free for Christmas

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What are the holidays without the search for the perfect gift, the hunt for the rock-bottom best deal on the newest electronic gadget, piles of presents under the tree, or the Secret Santa gift exchange at work?

Apparently it’s more Whoville — and less Grinch — than you might think. Here are six families who have given up the holiday shopping routine for what they say is a more relaxed and — dare I say richer? — experience.  

Dan Nainan | Manhattan, N.Y.

Going green and saving money are just two reasons that Dan Nainan proposed to his family that they stop gift giving altogether. There was also the challenge of finding the right gift. “Let’s face it, a male of my age is going to have a difficult time figuring out what my sister would like, or what my parents would like . . . how would I have any clue?” he asks.

He explains why he took the initiative to bring up the idea of a gift-free holiday season with his family: “It occurred to me that we were all spending and wasting an inordinate amount of time (and money) fighting the crowds, then spending even more time and money getting the gifts wrapped, and then even further time and money returning the gifts.”

His family embraced the change. For the past several years, instead of giving gifts to each other, they donate the money they would have spent on each other to a needy family. ‘For us, it’s much more important to spend time with our loved ones. That is truly the best gift of all,” he says. That and not “seeing people trampled to death on Black Friday, or fighting over parking spaces.”

Carol Meerschaert | Paoli, Pa.

You definitely won’t find Carol Meerschaert frantically trying to thaw a turkey or wrap last-minute presents this holiday season. For one thing, she is a vegan. For another, she’s likely to celebrate the holiday with a hike, followed by a potluck where everyone “eats what they like,” she says. The meal will be followed by games, a movie or both. Gifts will not be exchanged.

“The point of the holidays should be to cherish your family and friends,” she explains. “Spend time together, create memories. For many it has become a gimme, gimme. Or worse, a stress-filled time of year with lists, crowds and bills. We opted out.”

When asked whether there was any backlash when her family decided to go gift-free, she says there was none at all. “The opposite,” she said. Everyone was relieved not to have to figure out what to buy, and then to shop for it.

Julia Robinson Shimizu | Los Angeles

It wasn’t smooth sailing for Julia Robinson Shimizu’s family after her mother, now 90, proposed they stop exchanging gifts, which she felt were a waste of money. “There were some bad feelings when some family members refused to cooperate and gave gifts anyway, making others uncomfortable, even angry,” she says.  But exchanging presents is no longer a part of their tradition, and everyone seems to be at peace with it. “The idea of spending time together, even shopping together, at other times of the year, has much more meaning to us,” she says.

Unlike Nainan and Meerschaert’s families, there are children in Shimizu’s extended family, and they still get gifts, she says.  “I don’t have small children and am only a great-aunt to those who do, (so) I can’t speak to this. I do have fond memories of the excitement of the holidays and I suppose limited gift giving to kids is acceptable, but want to be careful to avoid going over the top. I think I am a lonely voice on this one, though,” she adds.

Jackie Kaufman | Redington Shores, Fla.

About 10 years ago Jackie Kaufman’s family opted out of all gift giving; not just for the holidays but for birthdays, anniversaries and “anything that requires a gift.” Even more surprising: Her kids are now age 22 and 25, which means they were still preteens when this change took place.

“Our family was in the retail gift business for many years, including owning stores and kiosks in major malls in Florida,” she explains. “Year after year we saw firsthand how the business of buying gifts and the stress level, took its toll on people. How any gift was better then not buying one at all. It was crazy, and in my mind I said this is not what any of the holidays should be about. It should not be the gift, but the recognition of that other person in your life.”

Now she says a family dinner or a phone call to wish a happy birthday is enough. “Our life around any of the holidays is now stress-free knowing gifts are not on the agenda.”

Kristy Jahn-Smith | Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada  

Christmas dinner last year was pizza and beer for Kristy Jahn-Smith’s family. There were no gifts. But they didn’t feel cheated at all; they were celebrating on a vacation to Mexico. It was such a success, that her family — husband and kids plus Grandpa, an aunt and an uncle — are all headed back again this year.

“Christmas day was spent swimming and drinking beers on the beach. It’s just so low-key and very relaxing. Lately when I am in Costco and see the rows of plastic crap stacked half way to the ceiling, I breathe a sigh of relief and smile, because I don’t have to think about any Christmas shopping. I know Grandpa is a big fan of spending Christmas this way, too. Ultimately we all spend more time together away from the distractions at home.”

Perhaps the best part? There’s no pressure on Mom to create a perfect holiday. “Instead of sweating over a turkey or cleaning house for a houseful of guests, I get to enjoy daily housekeeping service and a stack of good books, read poolside,” she says.

Max Wong | Los Angeles

It’s been more than a decade since Max Wong’s “really, really large extended Asian family,” as she describes them, decided to shop giving Christmas presents to everyone in the family, including the kids.

“Hoarding and OCD behavior runs in the family,” she explained in an interview about her radical approach to Christmas on my radio show, Talk Credit Radio. “It was sort of a pre-intervention step, because a lot of us looked around our houses and said, ‘We don’t want to be that little old lady that has to be dug out from under her pile of National Geographics.’”

Her cousin came up with the idea, and while everyone liked it, they immediately started “cheating in the stupidest possible ways,” says Wong. For example, she bought her niece the entire Lemony Snicket book series, which she found in pristine condition at a garage sale for only $7. Her niece’s mom immediately called her out on it. “I’m a librarian,” she told her, “I can her get any book you want her to read.”

When I asked her how the children in the family reacted, she said that’s the first question she always gets when people hear they do this: “What about the children? Like they are living some kind of Dickensian horrible life.” The loophole is they still give birthday and graduation gifts, but for Christmas they try to give experiences instead: baking cookies, going caroling, or staying up all night and spending the day in PJs. “We thought we were going to get a lot of complaints, and we got none. They quickly figured out this (the relaxed rules) was a better deal.”


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